The “Colorful Japan” exhibition which opened today at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam showcases a selection of 226 of the more than 800 Japanese posters in their collection.

Colorful Japan posters

The reason why the Stedelijk Museum has such a large collection of Japanese posters can be attributed to Shigeru Watano (Osaka 1937 – Amsterdam 2012). Watano started working for a Dutch graphic design studio in 1966. He designed the Japanese logo and all the Japanese language graphics for the Dutch pavilion at the 1970 Expo in Osaka. He also contributed to the succes of Dick Bruna’s Miffy on the Japanese market. The Stedelijk Museum benefitted greatly from his connections with the Japanese design community and Japanese graphic designers started contributing their work to the Dutch museum on his request. “Colorful Japan” is the museum’s way to posthumously thank Shigeru Watano for his commitment.

Colorful Japan, posters at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam
Japanese graphic design

It is an impressive collection. There are booklets available that contain background information on each of these posters. You can also download it (pdf) from the museum website.

Sometimes Japanese sensibilities make it difficult to discern what a poster might be advertising. A poster of little boy holding out a handful of cigarette butts isn’t a PSA about the dangers of smoking, but tells smokers to clean up after themselves. Sometimes posters are quite abstract and the actual advertisement too small to make out. Japanese visual culture is less direct than Western design, the image doesn’t always seem to match the subject.

Japanese graphic design poster with rabbit illustration
KAZUMASA NAGAI
(Osaka 1929)
Kazumasa Nagai exhibition, 1991

If you go see it, try and keep count of all the rabbits…

Colorful Japan Exhibition at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum runs from 7 September 2019 until 2 February 2020.